99 Problems

Published on January 26th, 2017 | by Nalini Jones



January 2017, the foyer of our public elementary school. Posters for the Young Astronaut program, cardboard boxes for shelter donations, mosaics of flags and handprints. More than 38% of students in the district speak a language other than English at home. In our magnet school, 58% of the students are considered “minority.” Every week, the children gather for All-School Meeting and sing “Our School’s a Rainbow.” They mean it.

The artwork in the corridors is always changing. Cubist self-portraits, kindergarten apple trees, swirling starry nights. The one constant is the presidential portrait. But now that President-Elect Trump is inaugurated, the principal plans to hang his picture in the place where a portrait of President Obama now hangs.

“It’s a teaching moment,” the principal said when I expressed concern. “This is our 45th president. This is how long his term will be. This is how many people voted for him. We look to the facts.”

But there are so many facts, so many statements on the record that our children have heard, directly or repeated. We teach our children to reject bullying and bigotry, and we have elevated a bully and bigot to the highest office. Among the astonishing demands of this moment is that we will be forced to pass this disconnect onto our children.

The portrait of President Obama was matted with a smaller photo of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., beneath the words I Have A Dream. The implications are clear: a line connecting the Civil Rights movement to Mr. Obama’s presidency. But just as powerfully, a girl could see a leader who values the contributions of women. My nine year-old, interested in marine life, could see a leader who speaks vividly and knowledgeably about science. A child with parents from Haiti or Colombia could see a head of state who celebrates diversity. An African-American boy could see plain reality—fact—in the place of Dr. King’s dream.

What will they see when they look at Mr. Trump?

by DonkeyHotey / Creative Commons License

“They’ll learn that no vote is a bad vote,” the principal offers. I want my daughters to learn something a great deal more useful, principled, and conscientious.

In Politics and the English Language, George Orwell wrote with devastating clarity about the political dangers that arise from “a lack of precision” when writing collapses into abstraction. “The writer either has a meaning and cannot express it, or he inadvertently says something else, or he is almost indifferent as to whether his words mean anything or not.” This is the definition of weak writing, in which the meaning is debased or lost and its impact distorted (or outright inverted) because the writer has not taken “necessary trouble.”

In the aftermath of the election, we’ve heard from those who inadvertently said more with their votes than they intended. They feel injured by accusations of racism. They have no problem with women, Jews, immigrants, gay people, Muslims, the disabled. They’d like their kids to go to science class.

But however these voters sought to put Mr. Trump’s bigotry aside—whatever wild calculations they devised to arrive at the notion that such bigotry was not definitive—the impact of electing this man is clear and irrefutable. It is a fact that Mr. Trump has appointed white supremacists as strategists and cabinet members. It is a fact that he has dismissed climate change as a hoax and named oil tycoons as energy advisors. It is a fact he has threatened to deport undocumented children. It is a fact that he mocked a person with disabilities. It is a fact that he routinely trashes women in ways that are indecent. When faced with his portrait, these features are a prominent part of what children will see. Will we take the “necessary trouble” to offer explanation or context?

The principal is tired. It’s an inquiry-based curriculum, he reminds me. If students ask questions, teachers will do their best to answer.

“An ideal school” by Nalini’s daughter – note the horse

But what about the students who don’t ask? The quiet kids, the ones who are afraid or shy? The girls, who don’t raise their hands as frequently as boys do?

Nor are the dangers limited to them. Every single time a child encounters an image of a bully as President, we might guess what that child has learned. Did he win, my nine year-old asked, because he was the loudest?

“In prose,” wrote Orwell, “the worst thing one can do with words is surrender to them.” The search for the right words is not ultimately about aesthetics or the books we hope to sell; it’s the best way we know to interrogate our own first impressions and understand our own thinking. It’s a form of thinking, a journey toward clarity.

And that brings us to the great challenge all schools face: not simply to groom students for individual success but to educate the citizenry. This is our mandate. A child who is old enough to read is also old enough to begin learning context and discernment. A child who goes online to research an elementary school project is at exactly the right age to begin his education in media literacy. A child who knows he shouldn’t lie is old enough to expect facts from his President. A child who is taught that she is fortunate to live in a democracy is old enough to hear that she is also responsible for it. Whatever America we make next is one we will earn, and we cripple our children if they are not fit to take part in that work. “No vote is a bad vote” is the bottom-most expectation, the trophy for showing up.

It is hard work to be precise. And damn near a circus act, teaching our children to respect the office of the Presidency while renouncing Mr. Trump’s brutality, intolerance and ignorance. But if we blur those lines, if we model dumb faith in his leadership, we imperil children.

My seven year-old is more worried about grown-ups. “Will he keep hurting women?”

I told her I hoped not, that maybe he hadn’t realized how hurtful he’s been.

“But doesn’t it hurt if he grabs your vagina?”

It is a question any rational child might ask. Mine heard about the pussy-grabbing from an older child on the school bus. Every time she sees the portrait of Mr. Trump in her school, she will know the facts: he is the President; his term is four years; he is a sexual predator; a sexual predator won. What will she learn about herself—about her value in the culture as a strong and intelligent girl—when she walks past this daily reminder of his power?

Maybe the principal will still hang the portrait. It won’t be the first time a young black girl has passed beneath the bland smile of a President who will not protect her; those guys could fill the corridor. A gay high-schooler in the eighties had scant hope that his President would support him, even if he couldn’t have known the full extent of Reagan’s neglect—the hundreds of thousands of Americans who would die from that administration’s chilling refusal to act. I invoke this history as a reminder of a President’s power. What he says or doesn’t say, what seizes his attention, what he denies or withholds, supports or overturns, can mean life or death. If we are to believe any of Mr. Trump’s rhetoric, my daughters and their classmates will suffer real losses, not abstracted ones, for as long his picture hangs.

Adapted from a version of this essay published at Welcome Table Press

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About the Author

NALINI JONES is the author of What You Call Winter, a story collection set in a Catholic neighborhood of Mumbai. She is a recipient of an NEA fellowship, Pushcart Prize, and O. Henry Prize. Her work has appeared in Ploughshares, One Story and Ninth Letter, among others, and she has contributed to anthologies about siblings and HIV in India. She is currently at work on a novel.

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